THERE WERE VERY few days now when something didn’t hurt. Bernadette sighed as she shifted the commercial-sized van into park, knowing her knees would give her hell the minute she stepped out. She let herself sit there just a few seconds longer.
“This is your safehouse?” In the middle row of passenger seats in the back, Cameron almost pressed his face against the window.
“It’s not officially registered or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.” Bernadette glanced up at the rearview mirror and smirked at him. He didn’t see her.
Randall nodded in the passenger seat beside her. “Looks good to me.”
“As long as there’s a bed big enough for this baby, I’ll be happy.” Mirela let out a long sigh and rubbed her hand in circles over her swollen belly.
Beside her in the first row of seats, her husband feigned insult. “I hope you’ll let me share it with you.”
“If it’s big enough.” Mirela turned to give him a slow, exhausted smile. “Spooning’s a little out of the question at this point, don’t you think?”
Brad chuckled and rubbed her belly with her.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Cameron rolled his eyes but didn’t turn away from the window. “Get a room.”
“That’s literally what we’re talking about,” Mirela told him.
“All right.” Randall slapped his long, lanky thighs and opened the front passenger-side door. “Let’s check it out.” He didn’t wait for anyone else’s agreement before slipping out of the van and closing the door behind him.
Brad slid open the van’s single back door and helped his pregnant wife out first. She groaned a little, having to duck through the doorway, and steadied herself on the side of the van when her feet landed in the dirt driveway studded with browning crabgrass. Cameron puffed out a sigh and followed after them.
Bernadette stayed in the driver’s seat, watching Don and Tony in the third row all the way in the back. The twins were still struggling with the massive wall between them, she knew. Six months on the road after they’d broken Tony, Kaylee, Leo, and John out of that fucked-up lab, and Tony still hadn’t said more than a few words a day, if that. Whatever else Vanguard Industries had done to the poor guy couldn’t be summed up in any amount of words anyway, but they all got the gist of it.
Some people were just damn unlucky. Some people were snatched up from their homes or their jobs, carted off to the middle of nowhere, poked and prodded beyond imagining, and forced to endure a kind of torture she could never fathom. Tony was one of those people. He was one of even fewer who’d had his beat stripped from him while the rest of the world lauded the excellence of scientific advancement. It was all bullshit, and every person here knew it. Tony more than any of them.
Like an amputee who hardly remembered how he’d lost his limb, the guy was still working through the scars left by that severed part of him. Bernadette wished she knew how to comfort him—both of them. Don was just as clueless as to how to be with his twin when the entire dynamic between them had changed. But there wasn’t any way to fix something like this.
The others might have known, maybe. But the others had either turned against the small tribe this faction of Sleepwater had made for themselves, or they’d run from the pain of losing one of their own. Who was to say if any of the scattered others would come looking for them again? Bernadette wasn’t a pessimist by any means, but she didn’t screw around with wishful thinking, either.
The driver-side door opened, startling her out of her thoughts. A quick glance in the rearview mirror showed her only an empty seat. She hadn’t even noticed the twins getting out of the van.
Randall stood there beside the open door, smirking at her, his thick, black-framed glasses slipping down over the bridge of his aquiline nose. “I don’t think we can get inside without you.”
She smiled up at him. “Oh, I’m sure you could. Nobody locks their doors down here anyway. Can’t remember if I did or not.” She left the keys in the ignition and pushed herself out of the driver’s seat. When Randall extended a hand to help her out, obviously expecting her to take it, she snorted and waved him off. “Put that hand away. I’m not senile, and I’m definitely not handicapped.”
Randall chuckled as she managed to get both of her brown loafers onto the ground. “Not yet.”
Bernadette ignored him, fighting back most of a grimace at the sharp pain in her knees but refusing to comment on them or bend to try rubbing out the pain. That never worked, anyway. Randall shut the door behind her.
“I thought anyone over sixty-five was a senior citizen,” Cameron said, his arms folded as he watched Bernadette and Randall step away from the van. The others made their way slowly toward the cabin at the end of the dirt drive. “You’re way over that, aren’t you?”
Bernadette raised an eyebrow at him and pointed. “Watch it.”
“Yeah, I’m watching.” To anyone else, Cameron’s impassive expression looked a lot like apathy and condescension. She knew him well enough to recognize the tiny flicker at the corner of his mouth that served as his small smile. “Gotta make sure you don’t fall and break a hip.”
“Oh, Lord.” Bernadette shook her head and headed toward the cabin. When she passed Cameron, she lashed out to slap his arm with the back of her hand. “And if I did that, you’d still just be watching me, wouldn’t you?”
She chuckled and fished around in the pocket of her denim dress. “Did you try the door?” she called to Brad and Mirela.
“It’s definitely locked.” Brad slipped his arm around his wife’s waist and whispered something in her ear.
Mirela just shook her head with that small, tired smile. She removed one hand from her hip to wipe at the sweat on her forehead. “Is everyone else this hot, or is it just me?”
Bernadette reached the front porch with its semi-rotted wooden steps and the rocker missing one of its armrests. A sharp, painful longing twisted her gut. Karl would’ve made fixing that chair his first job when they got here. But Karl was gone, wasn’t he? And no one but Leo had gotten a chance to say goodbye.
Swallowing, she shot Mirela a sympathetic smile and nodded. “That’s just the South in August, honey. We’ll turn the fans on first thing.” The key in her hand stuck in the doorknob for a few seconds, and she had to jiggle it a little before it finally turned. “Assuming there’s still power running through the place.”
Mirela sighed. “Oh, boy.”
“Hey, we’ll figure it out.” Brad rubbed her back. “If we have to get a generator, I’ll pick one up, no problem. Not gonna let you cook in the heat, okay?”
“I’m already cookin’.” His wife closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “And the timer on this kid’s gonna go off at any minute.”
The door jammed on the warped boards of the cabin floor, and when Bernadette grunted against it, Randall reached over her shoulder and gave it a little shove. The door creaked, and then it opened. Bernadette immediately stepped back and turned her head away, covering her mouth and nose. Her eyes fell on the twins, both of whom flared their nostrils and leaned away from the door. At least with something like this, they were their old, synced selves again. They’d be fine.
“Oh, no.” Mirela heaved and waddled off the porch, followed quickly by Brad.
“Are you gonna puke?” he called after her. “Can I get you anything?”
“Not smothering me would be nice…” The sound of dry heaving came from the bushes on the side of the cabin.
Cameron folded his arms again and stepped inside. “Okay, what died?”
Bernadette cleared her throat, made an effort to breathe only through her nose, and waved a hand toward the dust-covered furniture in the cabin’s main room. “Just check everywhere,” she said. “Or follow the smell. You’ll find it.”
Without a word, Cameron went to the light switch on the wall first and flipped it up. The yellow, dusty bulb in the ceiling fixture flickered then came on. “Guess there’s power.” Then he stepped down the single step into the living room and went looking for the source of the stench.
Randall met Bernadette’s gaze and shook his head. “Nothing phases him, huh?”
“Well, almost nothing.” She fanned the air in front of her nose. “It’s been a while since I’ve smelled death like this.”
The man leaned against the outer wall just beside the door and folded his arms. “How long’s it been since you were here?”
Bernadette ran a finger over the windowsill between the door and the rocking chair, swiping up a thick layer of dust and a few streaks of mostly dry mold. “A long time. With everything that’s happening now, though, it feels right to come back.”
He studied her with slightly squinted eyes, the corners of his mouth lifting in a smile that was half admiration and half intense curiosity. “We’re not here just for the safehouse, are we?”
Wiping her dirtied finger on the side of her dress, Bernadette swallowed and glanced up at him. “Well aren’t you Mr. Observant.”